The Butterfly Man of New Orleans

The patera on one Butterfly Man armoire depicts an eagle surmounted by eighteen stars within an ovoid nimbus (Fig. 4a). The use of highly similar eagle inlays by the New York City cabinetmaker Michael Allison (1793–1855) suggests that this element may have been imported from the Northeast. Similar eagle inlays are found on four other early nineteenth-century Louisiana armoires made by four different cabinetmakers.32       

Close examination of the group of armoires attributed to the Butterfly Man reveals their maker as a gifted and inspired artisan. The accomplished stringing and pictorial inlays on six of them were likewise created by a sophisticated craftsman whose patterns are associated with Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Lexington—quite possibly George Dewhurst. While we wait in hope of confirming the identity of the Butterfly Man through future scholarship, his work remains our treasured consolation.33

1 The word armoire is derived from the Latin word armarium, meaning a place for storing arms. The related terms armoire, armarie, aumaire, and almaire, all meaning cabinet or wardrobe, abound in French literary references. For examples, see Henry Havard, Dictionnaire de L’Ameublement et de la décoration…, 4 vols.(Paris, 1887–1890), vol. 1, pp. 150–163.
2 The succession inventory of Jean Rondot, compiled in 1747, lists a walnut armoire in the chamber; SC 28, 882, French Superior Council 1714–1769, Colonial Judicial Records, Louisiana State Museum Historical Center, New Orleans. In Louisiana, the terms wardrobe and clothes press were used interchangeably with armoire in such documents. A study of early Louisiana inventories written by Brian Costello will appear in Jack D. Holden and H. Parrott Bacot, The Furniture of Louisiana, Colonial and Federal Periods, Creole and Vernacular, 1735–1835 (Historic New Orleans Collection, forthcoming 2010).
3 For definitions of the term armoire as it is used in Louisiana, as well as “Cajun armoire” (armoire Acadienne, armoire cajenne) and “Creole armoire,” see Jay Dearborn Edwards and Nicolas Kariouk Pecquet du Bellay de Verton, A Creole Lexicon: Architecture, Landscape, People (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2004), pp. 10–11, 41, 78.
4  Building on a foundation of early Louisiana furniture studies pioneered by Jessie J. Poesch, a new study of armoires from 1735 to 1835 will be included in Holden and Bacot, Furniture of Louisiana. See Jessie J. Poesch, “Early Louisiana armoires,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 96, no. 2 (August 1968), pp. 196–205; Jessie J. Poesch, Early Furniture of Louisiana (Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans, 1972); and Francis J. Puig, “The Early Furniture of the Mississippi River Valley, 1760–1820,” in The American Craftsman and the European Tradition, 1620–1820, ed. Francis J. Puig and Michael Conforti (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, 1989), pp. 152–168.
5 The name was coined by the New Orleans collector Hugh E. Smith in the 1970s.
6  The armoires were made in three heights of approximately six, seven, and eight feet. The maker disregarded scale and simply added to or subtracted from the height. As a result, the short ones appear wide for their height.
7 The added expense of inlay could explain the relative rarity of embellished examples.
8 Stephen P. Latta, “‘Lately received from the manufactory of Duhurst and Son’: The Documentation on Imports and Domestic Production” (paper presented at the Winterthur Museum Furniture Forum, Delaware, March 1–2, 2007).
9 Whitney’s New-Orleans Directory and Louisiana and Mississippi Almanac for 1811 lists twenty-eight cabinetmakers, ten joiners, six turners, eight wood merchants, three upholsterers, and one leather tanner. John Adems Paxton’s New-Orleans City Directory and Register for 1822 lists fifty-eight cabinetmakers, two joiners, four turners, seventeen wood merchants, twelve upholsterers, and three leather tanners, plus two carvers-gilders, one pianoforte maker, and six furniture stores. By contrast, over one thousand cabinetmakers were active in Philadelphia between 1816 and 1830. See Deborah Ducoff-Barone, “Philadelphia furniture makers, 1816–1830,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 145 no. 5 (May 1994), pp. 742–755. A list of all recorded cabinetmakers in New Orleans in this period, compiled from primary sources, will appear in Holden and Bacot, Furniture of Louisiana.
10 Peter M. Kenny, Frances F. Bretter, and Ulrich Leben, Honoré Lannuier, Cabinet Maker from Paris: The Life and Work of a French Ébéniste in Federal New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998), p. 84. Of Lannuier’s three known mahogany presses dating from 1812 to 1819, one descended in a Natchez, Mississippi, family.
11 See Robert D. Schwartz, The Stephen Girard Collection: A Selective Catalogue (Girard College, Philadelphia, 1980), No. 33.
12 Paul Lachance, “Repercussions of the Haitian Revolution in Louisiana,” in The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, ed. David Geggus (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2001), pp. 212–215. For more on émigré cabinetmakers, see Margo Preston, “New Orleans Free Men of Color: Cabinetmakers c. 1800–1850” (master’s thesis, Sotheby’s Institute, London, 2006).
13 Charles César Robin, Voyages dans l’intérieur de la Louisiane, de la Floride occidentale, et dans les îles de la Martinique et de Saint-Domingue, pendant les années 1802, 1803, 1804, 1805 et 1806, 3 vols. (Paris, 1807), vol. 2, pp. 82–83.
14 For a discussion of these indenture contracts, see Paul Lachance, “A Graphical Overview of New Orleans Indentures, 1809–1843,” Index to New Orleans Indentures, 1809–1843, City Archives and Special Collections, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library, http://nutrias
.org/~nopl/inv/indentures/graphs.htm. The authors thank Irene Wainwright for assisting with these contracts and other period documents.
15 See Jack D. Holden, “Echoes of an Island Past: Flush Panel Armoires in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana,” Southern Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 3 (Spring 2007), pp. 118–126.
16 Louis Malfoy, Le meuble de port: un patrimoine redécouvert (Editions de l’Amateur, Paris, 1992), pp. 82–83. We thank John Lawrence of the Historic New Orleans Collection for bringing this publication to our attention.
17 This detail was noted in Poesch, “Early Louisiana armoires,” p. 204.
18 This detail was discovered by Steven Huber.
19 Robert D. Mussey Jr., The Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, 2003), p. 96.
20 See n. 8. Latta has attempted to match Dewhurst’s moves and possible authorship to the reoccurrence of specific inlays; see Latta, “‘Lately received from the manufactory of Dewhurst and son’: Inlay in Federal America” (master’s thesis, Pennsylvania State University, 2008). 
21 See n. 8; and Deanne Levison, “The symbolism of floral inlay,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 145, no. 5 (May 1994), p. 709.
22 Robin, Voyages, vol. 2, pp.  82–83.
23 Latta, e-mail correspondence with Cybèle Gontar, March 6, 2008.
24 The cross-pollination of regional accents, especially between Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee furniture, was discussed in Marianne Ramsay, “Early Kentucky Furniture: Selected Examples of Inlaid Decoration;” and Anne S. McPherson, “Birds, Busts and Bellflowers: The Idiosyncratic Inlay of Tennessee Furniture” (papers presented at the Winterthur Museum Furniture Forum, March 1–2, 2007).
25 See n. 8.
26 See Derita Coleman Williams and Nathan Harsh, The Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture and Its Makers Through 1850 (Tennessee Historical Society, Tennessee State Museum Foundation, Nashville, 1988), pp. 37–38.
27 See Vernon C. Stoneman, John and Thomas Seymour, Cabinetmakers in Boston, 1794–1816 (Special Publications, Boston, 1959), Pls. 22, 23, 83; and Mussey, Furniture Masterworks, pp. 93–95. For toothed pattern inlay on a Philadelphia worktable, see Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture: The Federal Period in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum (Viking Press, New York, 1966), pp. 420–422, No. 426.
28 Stoneman, John and Thomas Seymour, p. 375; and Mussey, Furniture Masterworks, pp. 95–96.
29 Mussey, Furniture Masterworks, p. 96.
30 It is in the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Wade Hollens-worth.
31 See Gregory R. Weidman, Furniture in Maryland, 1740–1940: The Collection of the Maryland Historical Society (Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1984), p. 154, Fig. 115A.
32 They are in the collections of the Beauregard-Keyes House, New Orleans; Robert E. Smith; Dr. and Mrs. F. Wayne Stromeyer; and Harold L. Williamson Jr.
33 The authors offer profound gratitude to the Historic New Orleans Collection for its support of the forthcoming Louisiana furniture book, which prompted this investigation. Both Stephen Latta, associate professor of cabinet and wood technology at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the furniture maker and restorer Steven Huber of Natchez, Mississippi, generously shared their noteworthy insights. Special thanks is also owed to Pat Bacot; Sarah Doerries; Jessica A. Dorman; Elizabeth Feld; Donald L. Fennimore; Mary M. Garsaud; Daniel Hammer; Teresa Kirkland; Elizabeth Laurent; Keely Merritt; Peter W. Patout; Anne Robichaux; and the library staff of the New-York Historical Society.

CYBÈLE GONTAR is in the PhD program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is a contributing author of The Furniture of Louisiana, Colonial and Federal Periods, Creole and Vernacular, 1735–1835 (Historic New Orleans Collection, forthcoming 2010).

JACK D. HOLDEN is a preservationist and collector of Louisiana’s material culture. He is a co-author of the forthcoming book The Furniture of Louisiana.

Thank you for signing up.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All